The Selfish Gene and memes

By mikelove, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 18 weeks ago.

Jerry Coyne of the Times Online wrote an article Thirty years of the Selfish Gene reviewing some of Dawkins ideas. It covers a little bit of Dawkins' explanation for how selfish genes can bring about cooperative behavior:

The second misunderstanding of Dawkins’s book was the notion that selfish genes must inevitably produce selfish behaviour. In reality, it describes how, to attain their selfish ends, genes can cooperate with each other (as Dawkins explains, the book might as well have been called “The Cooperative Gene”) and can produce social behaviours in animals.

And also points to another book by Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, "which he considers his finest intellectual achievement". Here is a nice quote from that:

It is legitimate to speak of adaptations as being 'for the benefit of' something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism. It is a smaller unit which I call the active, germ-line replicator. The most important kind of replicator is the 'gene' or small genetic fragment. Replicators are not, of course, selected directly, but by proxy; they are judged by their phenotypic effects. Although for some purposes it is convenient to think of these phenotypic effects as being packaged together in discrete 'vehicles' such as individual organisms, this is not fundamentally necessary. Rather, the replicator should be thought of as having extended phenotypic effects, consisting of all its effects on the world at large, not just its effects on the individual body in which it happens to be sitting.

But Coyne goes after Dawkins for his support of memes. I like memes, I think it is a helpful metaphor to make sense of culture, like Dobzhansky's "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution". And Coyne's arguments against memes are weak in my opinion:

Memes, unlike genes, are hard to define or recognize (is the King James Bible a meme, or only some of its chapters or even verses?). Unlike genes, memes are not replicated faithfully (people change and combine ideas and fashions as they pass them on).

Genes and their effects are notoriously hard to identify, with synergistic effects on phenotypes from interacting genes (as in epistasis) and interacting proteins, environmental thresholds affecting gene expression, polygenic inheritance, single genes affecting more than one trait (pleiotropy), etc. Basically, genes are messy things replicating through any means available in a messy world, a lot like ideas being whispered at parties, whizzing through ethernet cords, or moves being copied from dance floors to music videos to youtube to dance floors. It's a gnarly world. The replication, mutation, selection pressures on genes and little bits of culture are not the same, but the patterns are similar enough to borrow from the way we think about biological evolution.

Not all culture is changed by imitation (many wars are fought not by people who share their leaders’ ideas, but by involuntary conscripts, and some religions are not chosen but simply forced upon people by their rulers).

I don't fully understand where this objection is coming from, but as a genetic parallel, when's the last time you used that tail of yours? You are propogating that tail not because you choose to, but because it's part of a package deal.

Memes are not, as their proponents often claim, disembodied objects having innate fitnesses. Rather, they are products of human minds, and their spread (or lack thereof) depends on human psychology.

Absolutely. Genes and memes do not have innate fitness, saying they have functions is almost implying too much intention. Their expression and effects are contingent on the environment and other genes and memes. But discounting the evolution of ideas because their spread is dependent on the tricky inner workings of the human brain is equivalent to discounting genes because their spread is dependent on the tricky physics of nucleotides and proteins.